38 Letters of the Alphabet

By Maeve Maddox

Daniel’s post on the letter Z certainly had the readership hopping on April 1! Most readers quickly got the joke and joined in on the April foolery, but a few seemed to be really annoyed with us. The comments are still coming in and make enjoyable reading.

A “perfect” alphabet would have one letter for every speech sound. As everybody knows, and nearly everybody loves to point out, English does not enjoy a perfect alphabet.

Of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, only 14 stand for a single speech sound:
b, d, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w, z

If we want to think about getting rid of “unnecessary” letters, the best candidate is not z, but c. C has no sound of its own, but is an alternate spelling for the sounds /k/ and /s/ as in camp and cent.

The next least necessary letter is q. Alone it represents the sound /k/. With a u it stands for the sound /kw/: Iraq, queen.

Of the five remaining consonant letters, f, g, s, x, and y, four represent distinct sounds of their own, but can also represent consonant sounds already represented by other letters:

f: fun, of
g: go, giraffe
s: sin, miser
x: fox, xylophone

The letter y can stand for either a consonant or a vowel:
y: yellow, gym

As for the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u, the sounds they represent number at least 12 (In American speech, the vowel sounds of father and on are the same):
a: at, ape, father
e: Ed, be
i: in, ice
o: on, no, to
u: up, uke, put

That takes care of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, but that’s not the end of the story.

Much of the confusion regarding English spelling comes from pretending that English is spelled with the 26 single letters of the alphabet. The truth is, we use letter combinations as “extra letters” to represent speech sounds that are not represented by any of the single letters. Here are 12 combinations that represent distinct speech sounds:

ow: cow
oi: oil
aw: law
ar: car
or: for
er: her
sh: ship
wh: wheel
ch: church
th: thin, this
ng: sing
si; vision

Any way you cut it, English spelling is complicated, but knowing about the combinations that represent sounds not in the alphabet can clear up a lot of the confusion.

As for getting rid of any of the letters, the Defense of Z on April 1 shows how popular that idea would be!

NOTE: Alternate spellings exist for the sounds /ow/, /oi/, /aw/, /er/, and /sh/. Alternate spellings also exist for many of the sounds represented by the single letters. The subject of alternate spellings is best reserved for another post.

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12 Responses to “38 Letters of the Alphabet”

  • NelsonOH

    Regarding the April Fool’s joke, I nearly took the bait and was preparing to write a comment in protest of the change when I paused and considered how the story sounded like a report from “The Onion”. Well done!

  • poch

    English spelling is easy enough. What I could never understand
    is french. Why the hell would spelling be different from its pronunciation?! Weird.

  • Brad

    C is also handy when when combined with H to make the /ch/ sound.

  • Roberta B.

    You could have used the phonetic symbols to represent these sounds as used in the dictionary. When I tutored ESL students way back in my college days, that’s what we often did. It might have helped them use a dictionary. However, I believe those extra symbols that they never would see written in English just tended to confuse them. I suppose the pronunciation of some words (no matter the language), just need to be learned. Isn’t it great that now all we have to do is click on the sound symbol of an on-line dictionary to hear the pronunciation, even though there are many variations in the quality of the sound clip and in the pronunciation itself, due to accent and dialect.

  • Cecily

    @Brad: You beat me to it regarding the need for “c” in “ch”.

    Re 38 unique sounds – how did you arrive at that number? Pitman’s misguided Initial Teaching Alphabet that was in vogue in the ’60s and ’70s (http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ita.htm) could only reduce English to 42 unique sounds.

    It think it’s because you’ve started with the alphabet, rather than the sounds. For instance, “dogs” and “zip” both have a sound that is similar to “z”, but the two are not quite the same, and hence ought to have a different symbol. Similarly, not all “th” sounds are the same: compare “thumb” with “that”.

  • Maeve

    Cecily,
    Yes, the post is more about letters than sounds. It’s not intended to be an in-depth phonological study. When I’m being more precise, I put the sounds of English at 44-45.

    I’ve indicated the two sounds of th with the examples: thin /θ/ and this /ð/.

  • S.D.

    I read about this in a preface to Pygmalion. It’s crazy.

  • Peter

    A “perfect” alphabet would have one letter for every speech sound. As everybody knows, and nearly everybody loves to point out, English does not enjoy a perfect alphabet.

    You could try the Shavian alphabet 🙂

    Of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, only 14 stand for a single speech sound:
    b, d, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w, z

    “h” has (at least) two sounds (honest it has!)
    “j” has several, in foreign words, but some have properly come into English; jalapeño, for example.
    “k”, “l”, “p” and “t” have two each, though they’re allophones in English so maybe you can discount them.
    “r” is in much the same boat as “h”, at least for non-American speakers.
    I think the rest are OK, though 😉

    g: go, giraffe

    Also the second “g” in some pronunciations of “garage”: “zh”

    s: sin, miser

    Again, “zh” is a possibility (Asia)

    x: fox, xylophone

    Also a “k”-like sound, though I can’t think of any examples other than “Xhosa”

    C is also handy when when combined with H to make the /ch/ sound.

    But you could just use “c” to spell the “ch” sound, and “k” or “s” for the sounds represented by “c” alone. (As they do in Bahasa Malaysia)

  • COLE ; N R

    I’ve alread written on -RemovingZ-, But one person i met says there are 52 distinct sounds in English – Actually most say about 44 or 45 – but there be two sounds – of the vowel in ‘cup’ and first in ‘away’ which have separate IPA symbols but I cannot hear a difference,. On the other hand the S S Society reckon that it is important to distinguish betwixt the two sounds of TH for foreigners learning English. !! Also in Standard Spelling words like Analyse – S is Correct – yankees who use z are Wrong!!

  • Danielle

    I think that many people will disagree on sounds depending on how they say them. In words like ‘dissect’ because so many people pronounce it wrong, I believe they just changed the pronunciation. So depending on where you’re from, yes, there might be more than 45 different sounds.

  • cconner

    My colleagues and I need help. A conversation came up about the letters of he alphabet after reading the article of the letter “Z” being removed. During that conversation, a debate on how many alphabet are in the English language occurred. We have a hung jury: some say 26; others say 54. Which is accurate? And if it is 54 now, what the heck are they?!?!

  • Maeve

    @cconner,
    You may find some answers in my article about the Alphabet on my site: http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/?page_id=14

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